I was interested in writing an article about the tattoo culture in New Orleans, partially because there seems to be a lot of corollaries between the two. It is also unavoidably prevalent here. I've lived in New York, North Carolina, and Massachusetts, and I've never seen as many tattoos (or as many different styles of design) as I have in New Orleans.
Initially, New Orleans and tattooing seem to share a lot: New Orleans is a city with a lot of secrets, tattoos are highly symbolic. People say tattoos are addictive, and this city is great with vice. New Orleans is incredibly tactile (food, alcohol, music industries thrive) tattoos are similarly sensory/visual aesthetically molded. Tattoos can be used for commemoration; New Orleans is always celebrating something.
I spoke with several local tattoo artists, discussing varying aspects of their career and the "tattoo lifestyle."
Tattoo Artists have a code of ethics
Obviously no one takes a blood oath and swears to never give a 17 year old a neck tattoo, however almost every single person I spoke with mentioned things they didn't do because they felt it wasn't morally correct. Some of the most common: Not tattooing drunk people, not doing racist or hateful tattoos, not tattooing the face or hands of someone who didn?t have the rest of their body covered, and trying to talk young kids out of getting their significant other's name.
When I asked why, I got a flood of answers about the responsibility you have when you are able to make a permanent mark on someone's body. "You're paying not only for the tattoo but for the benefit of the experience of everyone in the shop," says Ed Deringer of Electric Ladyland.
Tattoos don't have to be meaningful
With that said, there is a huge difference between putting thought into something and having it be meaningful. Every tattoo artist I spoke with bemoaned the TV shows about tattoos and how they've changed the industry: everything from making it more mainstream to giving people misconceptions about tattooing (what can be done to how long it will take, etc.) But perhaps what artists seemed most annoyed with was how TV shows make every tattoo seem like a deep meaningful journey, convincing customers that that's how all tattoos should be. As Cornbread, an artist at Hell or High Water, put it, "There's no TV cameras here. You don?t have to tell me how your grandfather fought in the Civil War and that's why you're getting a star."
Tattooing is a lifestyle, not a career
After all my interviews, I asked, "Is there anything you wish I had asked you?" The best response I got was from Keel, a tattooer at Pigment, who told me I should ask how people got involved in tattooing. Everyone I asked (subsequently) prefaced or ended their story with, "I kinda went about it a weird way," because there is no standard. Tattooing is one of the only industries where if you have a certification or took a class, you're MORE illegitimate. It's something you have to live. Professional tattoo artists came at it from all different angles. I talked to a former architecture student, an ex-homicide N.O.P.D officer, and a body piercer. The only commonality was that tattooing seemed to find them.
In describing his eventual return to New Orleans Cornbread stated, "This city decides whether you stay or go:" that holds true for the art form he practices as well. From speaking to these professionals, it seems fairly evident it's not something you seek out or decide to pursue like a major in college.
The world is getting smaller because of the internet
I asked a lot of questions about patterns between customers and regional trends. Most agreed that a common thread existed, but were hard pressed to give any actual examples or put a name on a New Orleans style. The closest concrete answer I got was that there's a lot of lettering and script names done locally.
There are of course regional tattoos that people get: Fleur de lis, crawfish, masks, pelicans, etc. However, both tourists and locals alike get these. Pinterest and Instagram kept coming up; namely how access to such a vast database has made it so "people find like minded people everywhere" as Neal Aultman of Pigment put it.
In addition, as Flex Wenger, artist at Idle Hands, pointed out, "Reality TV gave people the idea that tattoo artists can draw anything you want." This is a departure from the history of tattooing where people just picked a piece of art they liked from displays on the wall (called Flash). "Pick it and stick it" as it has been referred to. Historically, tattoos were given at ports the first and the fifteenth of every month (when navy ships docked), or in conjunction with a sideshow at a traveling circus.
But now, with the popularity of tattooing- everyone from Yale to jail, as Matty Runks of Electric Ladyland is getting ink. There is much more variety, most of which is good, but some of which is questionable. Which brings me to the most important piece of advice I received during my investigation:
Listen to your tattoo artist's advice
It was very hard to listen to every single person explain how they have clients come in, outline a piece, have it explained to them that it wasn't going to age well, and go ahead and get it anyway. Tattooers showed me pictures of small tattoos after ten years, tattoos on their person they got when they were 19, all indistinguishable blobs. The most common transgression cited by tattoo artists is requesting a design with too much detail in too small an area. Examples given included 100 or so characters on a wrist, scripture crowded on ribs, tiny silhouettes of birds flying. Everyone I interviewed had this resigned attitude towards it, as if they try to caution people but for the most part their advice goes unheeded. I can?t think of another profession where laypeople assume they know better than the person they hired to help them.
Overall, tattoo artists seem to be the gatekeepers to a subculture that has exploded in popularity in the past 20 years. The connection between this city and tattoos seems to be that individuals who thrive in this profession have the same relationship to New Orleans that most people have to tattoos. In one of my favorite interviews, Paul Raizus, an artist at Electric Ladyland, described how he thought about moving here for many years before finally deciding to take the plunge. It was strikingly similar to how people describe deciding to get their first tattoo. Interestingly, the way tattooers feel about and interact with this city seems to mirror reactions to their art.